Looming McIlroy-Horschel clash a showdown of young heavyweights

Billy Horschel (left) and Rory McIlroy have some history facing each other as they prepare for a Friday reunion.

Stan Badz/US PGA TOUR

SAN FRANCISCO – Before we fast-forward directly to Sunday’s Rory McIlroy-meets-Jordan Spieth dream final at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play – the anticipated Mayweather-Pacquiao matchup that all golf fans would love to see – there is much work to be done.

For one, young McIlroy, at 25, hasn’t stuck around so long at this championship in the past. He has tried it six times, and only twice has he advanced past the second round, the highlight being a finals loss to Hunter Mahan in 2012. The past two years, McIlroy departed the Arizona desert after one round (fellow Irishman Shane Lowry) and two (Harris English, 19 holes). So a new format that guarantees all players three matches and at least three days not only is good for sponsors, television, fans and general-excitement purposes . . . but very good for the World No. 1, too.

“If you go out and shoot 67 or 66 and get beaten on the first day, it still gives you an opportunity,” McIlroy said on the eve of his opening match against 2013 PGA champion Jason Dufner. “You are obviously playing well, but it still gives you an opportunity to maybe go through to the weekend and progress.”

Here’s where we are in the state of our game: Most of the world’s top 64 players are here at Harding Park, but Phil Mickelson took a pass and Tiger Woods didn’t qualify. So it’s McIlroy and Spieth on center stage. The former has had a little more time to settle into the bright spotlight than the 21-year-old who thrust himself in there with an incredible Masters triumph earlier this month.

A changing of the guard? Yes, you’re witnessing it before your eyes.

“Things change. Things move on,” McIlroy said. “I do feel that this generation are better equipped and more ready to win at the highest level at a younger age.”

He’s had only four PGA Tour starts this year, with his fourth-place showing at the Masters his top finish. He likes what he has seen thus far of Harding Park, and believes one big key this week will be driving the ball. That’s perfect. It’s his forte.

LATEST FROM FOX SPORTS

McIlroy will open against Dufner, who has been struggling, face Brandt Snedeker, a hot putter, on Thursday, and then get Billy Horschel on Friday.

McIlroy and Horschel have a little history with each other. They first met in the Walker Cup in 2007, Horschel playing for the U.S., McIlroy representing Great Britain & Ireland, at Northern Ireland’s Royal County Down. McIlroy three-putted the 18th hole to lose a Day 1 singles match to Horschel, whom he considered to be a tad brash – “loud and obnoxious,” were words McIlroy once used to describe Horschel’s behavior in Northern Ireland. McIlroy took down Horschel not once, but twice, including a singles rematch, the next day.

The U.S. captured the Walker Cup, which was all Horschel says he cared about. He and McIlroy get on quite fine today and chalk up that first long-ago encounter as two kids being kids. (“Fortunately,” McIlroy said jokingly this week, “he’s mellowed considerably since then.”)

Says Horschel, more seriously: “I had no animosity toward him. We were both young guys who were very emotional, very passionate, and I had no issues with him. I think the media made a big deal that we had an issue between us, but I never did.

“He’s a great guy, and I think very highly of him.”

Funny, but when the two players meet Friday, very possibly to decide who moves on from the pool, if there’s anything McIlroy will be looking to avenge, Horschel thinks it will be a different, far more recent showdown.

“I’m sure he wants to come at me because I beat him in the FedEx (Cup) last year,” Horschel said. “I beat him on the weekend and took away the cup from him. He obviously had a great season, but he could have gone down in the record books, one of the top seasons of all time. I’m sure we’ll both be amped up and be excited to play one another and hopefully produce some good golf between us.”

I had no animosity toward him. We were both young guys who were very emotional, very passionate, and I had no issues with him. I think the media made a big deal that we had an issue between us, but I never did.

Billy Horschel on Rory McIlroy

Last autumn, McIlroy had just won the Open Championship, WGC Bridgestone and PGA Championship; he was a man on a huge roll. Horschel had gone to the second playoff event outside Boston needing a big finish just to make it inside the top 70 in order to advance to the following week in Denver. He came through, finishing second.

Horschel then would win the BMW Championship and stare down McIlroy on the weekend in the Tour Championship at East Lake, shooting 69-68 to McIlroy’s 67-71.

This season, putting has held Horschel back, and on Wednesday afternoon, he put in some extra time on the practice green. One day earlier, Horschel, ranked 19th in the world, was at an outing in town when he glanced down at his phone, opened his Twitter app and began to read tweets that he’d been drawn in the same pool as McIlroy.

Horschel loves it. It’s an opportunity.

“It’s a great draw for everyone (in that group),” he said. “I think there are some pools that are a little bit easier and some pools that are a little bit tougher. That’s what you get with a draw, but it’s going to be a fun three days. I just hope I come out victorious.”

McIlroy will have some say in that. 

MORE FROM GOLFWEEK: 

McIlroy leaves lasting impression on junior golfers at Sage Valley

Lyle, Woosnam are match made in heaven at Legends of Golf

WGC Match Play: Breaking down new format